THE door is rapidly closing on St George Illawarra's finals hopes after the Dragons went down 34-14 to Manly at Brookvale Oval on Sunday.
On a weekend in which Parramatta and Penrith did them no favours with big wins, the Dragons led 8-0 after 15 minutes but couldn't post another point in the face of a 34-point onslaught from the Eagles.
After a dominant opening 20 minutes, it was a worrying reversion to the second half wobbles that - barring last week's win over Canterbury - has seen them outscored 101-22 in second stanzas in five of their last six games.
It highlights some obvious interchange frailties in the absence of some big names, but coach Paul McGregor wasn't mincing words post-match.
"They played the last 60 like we played the first 20," McGregor said.
"We were sticking to the plan well, really working over the opposition and came away with a few points and a few penalties. Then we just went away from it.
"I thought our starting three middles really dominated that middle third of the field. On the back of that we generated play-the-ball speed and played on the front foot. I don't think our interchange came on and did that.
"We're definitely not playing a complete game. There's parts of our game that are good and halftime usually stops that. It could be a few things without going too deep into it but it's not good enough.
"We've got to stay disciplined and patient in our footy and play the percentage game. We just don't want to do that, we don't want to to work hard enough for it.
"We want to easy before the hard and you can't do it. It doesn't matter if they're young or old, you've got to want the hard [stuff] first."
I leaves them two wins outside of the top eight beyond the midway point of the season, making their next match again North Queensland in Wollongong following the standalone Origin weekend a must-win.
"Every time you lose and you're not in a position where you'd prefer to be it makes the next game more important. We know that," McGregor said.
"We came here to win and we didn't. It makes next week's game more important. There's 11 games left so we've got to win seven of 11.
"Obviously the guys missing are key players in our team but that's rugby league. Unfortunately the footy God haven't been kind to us but we've got to deal with that.
"I always say to the young guys, it's a really good opportunity to see what you've got and what we're seeing at the moment, from all of us, is not good enough - including our staff and coaches, we've got to do better."
It brought no joy for McGregor but made for pleasant viewing for NSW coach Brad Fittler, with Tom Trbojevic starring for the Eagles.
Three weeks into his return from injury, 'Turbo' scored a long-range try and laid on two others, finishing with a staggering 339 run metres and nine tackle busts.
It came after a strong start from the Dragons that saw Ben Hunt burrow over just five minutes in, with Corey Norman converting for a 6-0 lead.
Norman added a penalty goal eight minutes later but it was all the Dragons had to show for mountain of possession an field position though the opening quarter.
Both sides lost their No. 9s in the space of 90 seconds, when McInnes was knocked out cold attempting a tackle on Jorge Taufu, and Api Koroisau hobbling off with an ankle injury 14 minutes before the break.
Reuben Garrick grabbed his side's first try a minute later off a well-weighted grubber from Cherry-Evans, planting the ball just inside the chalk in the right-hand corner. He couldn't convert his own try, leaving the margin at four.
The hosts took their first lead of the match 11 minutes later after Dylan Walker won a race with the dead-ball line to plant a grubber from Cade Cust, with Garrick converting for 10-8 lead.
Jack Gosiewski barged over for soft dummy-half try six minutes into the second stanza and the lead swelled to virtually unassailable 14 points when Cust crossed nine minutes later, with Garrrick again converting.
It followed a break from Trbojevic that left Matt Dufty and Jonus Pearson prone on the deck, with Walker putting Cust across in the corner.
Trbojevic laid on another when he burst through some flimsy defence in the middle to put Manase Fainu over under the posts to extend the margin to 20.
He did it all himself with eight minutes left, gathering in his own chip and racing 60 metres to score in the corner and put an exclamation point on the win.
Euan Aitken grabbed a late try but it was little consolation in the heavy defeat.